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Pity the eelpout no more.

There was a time when this unsightly fish — prone to wrapping itself around an angler's arm — would likely be beaten and tossed on lake ice as fodder for ravens.

For 40 years, Minnesota winters were accented by the spirited Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake. The mottled yellow and brown fish would be frozen into "bowling balls" or hung from ropes for contestants to shoot at with hockey pucks.

Nicknamed in various parts of North America as ling, lawyer, cusk or mud shark — the once-lowly burbot is being elevated in Minnesota from unprotected rough fish to game fish. The new designation arrived in March of 2020 as approved by the state Legislature.

Starting this year, the Department of Natural Resources will seek public input on establishing a bag limit for the species as well a harvest season (even if the season is designated "continuous").

"It's a free-for-all now, but those days are coming to an end,'' said Shannon Fisher of the DNR.

The agency's fisheries populations monitoring and regulations manager said the first bag limit for eelpout in state waters could be set by March 1, 2022. Informing the change is a study by researchers at Bemidji State University showing that winter movements of burbot make them vulnerable to overharvest.

The acoustic telemetry tracking study of 66 burbot in Bad Medicine Lake is showing predictable movements and clustering of the fish during their February-March spawning season. That's exactly when an increasing number of anglers are targeting them.

"There's a lot more people learning how to fish for them,'' Fisher said. "It's concerning … we want to do it in a sustainable way.''

The public input process won't be without tension. Certain anglers who have grown accustomed to keeping unlimited numbers of eelpout may desire a generous bag limit. Contrary to popular belief, the fish make for worthy table fare when cooked fresh (not frozen) in water or oil, Fisher said. Fans of the "poor man's lobster'' take stock in knowing they are North America's only freshwater cousin of oceanic cod.

On the other hand, Fisher said, a number of resort owners see value in Minnesota's native eelpout population as a winter sporting opportunity. Those stakeholders want conservative bag limits to curb exploitation of the species, Fisher said.

Winter frolic

Tyler Robinson, a postgraduate biology student working on his master's degree at Bemidji State, began his eelpout movement study for the DNR in March 2019. His crew fished through the ice on Bad Medicine to acquire samples. They surgically implanted transmitters into the fish, with each tag equipped with temperature and pressure sensors. In the study, 38 receivers were submerged throughout the lake to detect transmitter pings. Computer processing of the signals has revealed tons of winter activity and relative dormancy when the ice is out.

"It's an interesting population of fish,'' Robinson said. "Hopefully this brings some sort of regulation.''

Bad Medicine's eelpout dwell at depths of 30 to 40 feet during winter days. On winter nights, the fish rise to the shallows. Most anglers target them after the sun goes down. Fisher said the night bite on Bad Medicine lasts beyond midnight and a lot of anglers don't start fishing until 7 p.m.

Robinson said plateaus of sand and rock make for excellent eelpout spawning habitat. The reproduction activity starts in late February and is carried out for weeks with the fish clustering in balls — 20 to 50 of them at a time. Ice anglers who find the pods can catch the eelpout with ease.

"These fish see all their pressure at the same time of year,'' Robinson said.

If the ongoing research shows that burbot return every February and March to the same spawning grounds, the species will be considered more vulnerable to fishing pressure than previously thought.

"If anglers discover the hot spawning spots … you could really decimate a whole population,'' Robinson said.

Besides swimming up and down in the water column during winter months, eelpout in Bad Medicine have shown they also like to roam north and south. Robinson said he looked up the movement history of one tagged fish caught by an angler. He discovered it logged several five-mile trips from one end of the narrow lake to the other.

He said Minnesota's fisheries biologists are starting to view the burbot as a sentinel fish to watch for signs of climate change and habitat loss. Eelpout desire clear, clean water systems with cold depths. In Bad Medicine, the fish explore those depths even when the water is poorly oxygenated, the study has shown.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213